OAKLAND, Calif. March 29, 2017 – Commercial Dungeness crab gear entangled a record number of whales in 2016, contributing to a third straight record-breaking year for entanglements along the U.S. West Coast, according to information released this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
While whale entanglements are reported up and down the coast, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has recently seen the highest number of entanglements.
“Whales are suffering slow, painful deaths because there are too many crab traps in Monterey Bay,” said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity. “When whales get tangled up in traps, they can die of starvation or dehydration. After seeing this problem reach a record level, California has to reduce the number of traps and issue emergency closures as needed to protect these beautiful animals.”
More than 71 separate cases of whale entanglements were reported last year off California, Oregon and Washington. That tops record-breaking totals in 2014 and 2015.
Of those, the commercial California Dungeness crab fishery was responsible for 22 confirmed whale entanglements out of the total of 29 where fishing-gear type could be identified. Dungeness traps entangled blue and humpback whales and an orca, and crab traps were reported on entangled whales in Canada and Mexico.
Entangled whales can carry traps and buoys hundreds of miles on their migrations, but these burdens sap them of strength, interfere with breathing, feeding and reproducing, and cause infected wounds. That can lead to starvation, dehydration and slow death.
In 2015 California formed the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to reduce whale entanglements, after the Center and other groups discovered West Coast whale entanglements had reached historic highs. In 2015 there were 62 reported entanglements, and 30 whales became entangled in 2014, up from an average of eight per year over the past decade.
“Endangered whales don’t have the resilience to fight through Dungeness crab pots during another year of record-breaking entanglements,” Kilduff said. “It’s time for action to replace words and for California to require changes to fishing practices. We need to stop the entanglements before it’s too late.”
In 2016 the Working Group produced a “Best Practices Guide” developed to help reduce the risk of entanglements. The modifications include adjusting the length of trap lines to maintain taut vertical lines, limits on the amount of line from the main buoy to the trailer buoy based on depth of fishing activity, and using no more than one trailer buoy in waters shallower than 30 fathoms. The guide also asks fishermen to avoid setting gear in the vicinity of whales.
Additional measures were developed before the 2015-2016 Dungeness crab season, but were not fully implemented because of the shortened season due to poisonous algae blooms. These blooms delayed fishing until spring 2016, when an unprecedented amount of fishing started. Crab season typically opens off Central California, which includes San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay and Morro Bay, on Nov. 15.
“Collaborative processes are a step in the right direction, but whales need urgent measures now until new fishing practices are widely adopted,” Kilduff said. “California fisheries are quickly earning a reputation as the deadliest for whales in the country.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.2 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.